Winter 2005

Remembrance of things past

The renovation of Paris’ oldest métro line reveals traces of a century of billboard advertising

‘On va vous faire un métro plus beau’, promise the posters announcing the renovation plans for Paris’ Champs Elysées métro station. The station serves as a central axis of M1 (line one), the first to be constructed in 1900, and is one of the several grandes dames of the Métropolitain transport hubs undergoing a facelift.

Postwar modernisation programmes introduced funky fonts (visit, for example, Opéra station), and additional cladding here and there disturb the elegant contours of the original concept. These, together with some garish colour schemes, are now considered ugly. A métro ‘plus beau’, restores the original features such as the relief ceramics around the hoardings, opens out and brightens the space and has those uniquely Parisian white tiles gleaming clean.

Evidently this is the first scrape-down of the advertising billboards since the Champs Elysées-Clemenceau station was built. The fragments of advertisements expose tantalising hints of graphic and typographic styles from more than a century of publicité. The most recognisable advertisement is also the earliest: a turn-of-the-century advertisement for soluble cocoa from its 1826 Dutch inventor, Van Houten. Soluble powder must have been something of a discovery as one of the most visible sections, a large word in voluminous flamboyant lettering, also offers the allure of ‘soluble powder’.

Most, however, can only guessed at: Art Deco typography is evident in several advertisements inviting passengers to visit the theatre or attend dances in Montmartre; the funicular which was built to spare visitors the steep walk up the steps to reach those fabled entertainment venues is also promoted; and there is also a hand-drawn wheel of an early motor car. Many fragments offer only the slightest clues, but there are pieces of 1930s or 1950s fat curved lettering as well as the confident, heavy-duty letterforms of the big brands of the time, in the genre of Ricard or Pernod, for example, as well as a few letters of woodblock, rodeo-style lettering. The blackletter of Kronenbourg is visible, while of other products there remains sometimes just the odd word, such as ‘tourne-disques’ (record players), accompanied by a good dose of purple, and the top of crop of curly hair – no doubt belonging to the talent of the day – and ‘whisky’, next to a hand-rendered glass.

Besides the commercial communications over the decades there are also more complete remains of RATP (the Parisian public transport network) communications, such as legal notices from 1942 regarding safety, boxed in columns in phonebook-style typesetting, some rather more generously set information regarding the 1963-64 laws granting reduced fares to students, and a sign addressed to ‘those who desire a stable position’, offering employment opportunities as a train master, a station master, a machinist, a qualified manual worker and a specialised manual worker.

The poignancy of this graphic moment has not been lost on the summer visitors to the capital using the station, hundreds of whom have pulled out their digital cameras to take home an unexpected Parisian snapshot.

At the time of writing this rich paper seam of seduction is already being consigned to the builders’ skip as the coarse brick behind is exposed, and something ‘more beautiful’ is prepared: a fresh canvas for the next hundred years of advertising.